[What follows is the text of a report published in the Los Angeles Times on this date in 1994:]
An accused Palestinian assassin confessed Monday to the murder of 270 people, stunning a Beirut courtroom with an unsubstantiated claim that in 1988, he personally blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Lebanese prosecutors said they will investigate Youssef Shaaban's claim but stressed that they doubted his confession. It reportedly came after the 29-year-old follower of terrorist leader Abu Nidal denied charges that he shot and killed a Jordanian diplomat near the diplomat's Beirut home in January.
The Lockerbie bombing, one of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in recent years, remains a major international political issue. The American and British governments initially blamed Iran for the crime, then Syria, and finally insisted that two suspected senior Libyan intelligence agents were behind the bombing. They persuaded the UN Security Council to punish Libya with international sanctions in an attempt to force it to turn over the two men to stand trial in the United States or Britain.
On Monday, the lawyer for the two Libyan suspects -- Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah -- applauded Shaaban's confession in Beirut, asserting it proved his clients' innocence. But British and American officials insisted that Libya still bears the blame for a bombing that stunned the world.
American counterterrorism officials said Monday that they had never ruled out a role by others besides the Libyans. "We're going to follow up very hard on all leads, including this one, just to make sure we've left nothing unturned," a senior official said.
But counterterrorism experts, public and private, expressed deep suspicions. "There are enough inconsistencies to make us doubt him," a senior US official said.
Shaaban would have been only 23 at the time of the 1988 bombing. "That's fairly young to have put together a complicated bomb and such a complicated operation all by himself," the official added.
Also, Shaaban's claim does not conform with Abu Nidal's usual tactics. "He never went in for aviation terrorism, especially anything as sophisticated as this," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at the RAND Corp.
American officials and terrorism specialists suggest that Shaaban's claim may be part of a Libyan campaign to shift the blame from the two Libyans indicted by the United States and Scotland and, in turn, to get painful international economic sanctions lifted.
"It's part of an operation. It's deliberately exploiting the use of someone already going down for another crime -- in this case the assassination of a Jordanian diplomat -- to accept responsibility for something that he could not possibly have done," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA terrorism specialist.
Relatives of the bombing victims were skeptical as well.
Jim Swire -- chief spokesman and activist for families of British passengers killed when the Pan Am Boeing 747 exploded en route to New York over the Scottish village, killing all 259 people aboard and 11 more on the ground -- said Shaaban's assertion "should be regarded with grave suspicion."
"It could be that he is seeking to attract what terrorists might regard as kudos for the Abu Nidal organization," Swire said, referring to the Revolutionary Council of Fatah founded by the Palestinian activist.
Shaaban's remarks--which the judge ordered stricken as irrelevant to the case, according to Reuters news service--reportedly came after Shaaban denied gunning down Jordan's second-ranking diplomat in Beirut on Jan 29. Shaaban's public trial has become the centerpiece of a Lebanese government campaign to prove that Beirut's decades of lawlessness are at an end.
[RB: The following comments are taken from The Herald’s coverage of this story:]
Yesterday, Mr Alistair Duff, the Edinburgh lawyer who is a member of the Libyans' international defence team headed by Tripoli advocate Dr Ibrahim Legwell, said: ''This is obviously an interesting development. It will be a matter for discussion with Dr Legwell and the rest of the legal team and we will be doing our utmost to investigate the man's claims.
''Once we have discussed it within the legal team then we will see what can be done about interviewing this man. We will obviously be interested in having him properly interviewed. That may mean a member of the legal team from Malta or, perhaps, Germany, travelling to Beirut to see him,'' he added.
However, in the UK, official sources were treating Shaaban's confession with care. A spokesman for the Crown Office in Edinburgh said: ''The Lord Advocate has not seen any evidence relating to the alleged involvement of Youssef Shaaban in the Lockerbie investigation.
''If anyone has any evidence relating to the case they should make it available to the Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary. The investigation remains open and we will of course look into anything relevant to the case but we cannot comment on any investigative steps which may be taken.''
A spokesman at the Foreign Office in London said: ''As we have said many times in the past, we believe there is a case to be answered in a court in Scotland or the United States by the two Libyans. If anyone has further information which implicates anyone else, this could be brought to the attention of the Lord Advocate in Scotland or the US authorities.''